The New Year not only brought along new hope for the UC Irvine Men’s Volleyball team, who finished last season with a dismal 9-20 record, but new expectations with a highly talented roster and many returning starters heading into their season, which opened Jan. 3 against the Cal Baptist Lancers.
After a slow start pinned the team into a two-games-to-one deficit, the Anteaters quickly regrouped and pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind victory in five games, 30-28, 23-30, 27-30, 30-24, 15-12. The early season matchup at Crawford Court was a statement game for the UCI squad as they head into the Elephant Bar Tournament featuring many of their Big West Conference foes.
UCI Head Coach John Speraw felt the win made a statement early in the season.
‘Even though we did not play as well as we would have liked, we kept on fighting and showed the other teams that this year, we are capable of coming back from behind in close games,’ Speraw said.
The foreshadowing of an epic seesaw battle was evident in the first set. After Cal Baptist jumped out to an early 4-0 lead, the Anteaters finally decided to show up, fighting back to take a 21-18 lead. Two consecutive serves by Cal Baptist landed directly into the net and gave the Anteaters set point.
On the ensuing play, junior middle blocker David Smith received a perfect lofted set from junior setter Brian Thornton and killed the ball down the middle of the court to give the first set to Irvine.
‘Even though they were bigger than us and had more height, we were able to block upfront during crucial stretches of the game and battle through our mistakes,’ Smith said.
The second and third set all belonged to the Lancers. Slow starts in the beginning of the second set continued to plague the Anteaters as they fell behind early 11-4. This deficit proved to be too much for Irvine to overcome as they would only get as close as four points before the Lancers tied the game at one set apiece.
While the Anteaters jumped out to an early 16-13 lead in the third set, they were unable to execute on their kills down the stretch. The Lancers blocked three consecutive shots while another Anteater kill sailed out of bounds, turning UCI’s three-point lead into a 29-26 deficit and an eventual heartbreaking third-set loss.
Learning from their slow start in the previous sets, the Anteaters quickly dominated from the beginning of the fourth set and took an early 13-6 lead. While the Lancers would eventually tie the game at 16 apiece, the Anteaters turned to their leading striker from a year ago, junior outside hitter Jayson Jablonsky. Jablonsky completely took over in the fourth set as he compiled seven of his team-high 22 kills in the pivotal set as UCI sent the game into the fifth set.
‘We became an entirely different team in the last two sets because we turned up our intensity,’ Jablonsky said. ‘Last year we might not have pulled through, but it was a complete team effort that led us to the win.’
While Jablonsky only had one kill in the climactic fifth set, it was UCI’s most important point as it came on match point and propelled the Anteaters to their first victory of the season.
Other stars also shined in the season opener as junior outside hitter Matt Webber also had 22 kills while Brian Thornton tallied 70 assists. Yet it was the blocking up front for the Anteaters that propelled them to victory in the last set, according to many of the players and coaches.
‘We got better at the end of the game and blocked four of their shots to help us hold on for the win in the last set,’ Speraw said.
The volleyball team now heads off to the Elephant Bar Tournament in Santa Barbara before coming home to play a much-anticipated match against the defending national champions, the UCLA Bruins, on Jan. 13.